It's been five months since Neda Soltan was gunned down in the streets of Tehran. In that time, Capsian Makan, Neda's boyfriend, has faced prison, torture, and exile. But he is finally able to speak freely.
In an interview with yesterday's Guardian, Makan discusses his relationship with Neda, her political involvement, and the attempts by the government to suppress the truth following her violent death. Neda's death was one of 80 reported during the protests against the presidential elections, but unlike the others, Neda died live on camera, in a clip that quickly traveled around the world, turning Neda into a symbol of reform-minded Iranians' struggle. According to eyewitness reports, Neda was shot by a member of the religious militia. Her face, and the face of her death, became a central image in the protests, a rallying point for people all over the globe. But as the Guardian notes, "symbols destroy lives." And Neda's was not the last.
In the days following Neda's murder, Makan spoke out to foreign news stations, before suddenly disappearing. It was soon learned that Makan was being held in the Evin Prison in Tehran, where he would stay for more than two months. During his time in prison, Makan was subjected to weeks of solitary confinement, interrogation, beatings, and psychological torture. He recalls being asked to lie about Neda, to say that she was a member of a group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. "They insisted on saying that Neda and I were members of a group with plans to cause these events," he said. They also suggested that Neda had gone intentionally to her death in order to undermine the state, but he could see that even they did not believe this;
"They weren't serious. It was pretty clear that they themselves didn't believe the accusations they were making." What was clear was the damage they felt Neda's death had dealt the Islamic Republic and that he had made it much worse by speaking out.
Then they changed tack. "They said 'The Iranian government is proud of you.' They brought me ice cream and biscuits. Then they wanted me to return to my cell. I went back feeling a little relieved. I thought, OK, let me turn off my light. It was like a searchlight shining straight on my face. Then I realised there was no switch to turn it off."
After months of torture, Makan was finally released on bail, thanks to the pressure placed on the regime by Neda's family, Amnesty, and other international organizations. Once released on bail, Makan's family and friends urged him to flee the country. Despite his initial reluctance to run, he finally escaped. "I didn't want to leave. For one, I believe this movement has not died out, and will never die out. But when I saw the constraints I was under, that they had me under constant surveillance, and that I had to keep silent, I really couldn't stand it," he said. And exile does have certain benefits: Now Makan can speak out, and more fully continue his mission to keep Neda's memory alive. "Now I have left Iran, I can cry out. To break the silence."
He also speaks about the days leading up to Neda's death, and her involvement in the protests. While neither Neda nor Caspian were particularly political, he says that Neda "joined the protesters from the beginning" and had only one goal: "democracy and freedom for Iranians." He recalls discussions they had about the dangers of the demonstrations:
"She said, 'You support me in everything I do, why not this?' I said, 'You don't understand these people. What happens if they catch you?' She said, 'It's not important, Caspian. It's my duty.' She said: 'Caspian, let me tell you the truth. I think that under the circumstances we now have, we're all responsible. Even if we'd had a child, I'd carry my child to these demos on my back.' That's when I realised I couldn't prevent her from going."
He says Neda attended virtually every demonstration. Although he sometimes went with her, Makan was not with Neda on the day of her death. He was taking photographs of demonstrators in another part of the city (Makan worked as a photographer), capturing image after image of security guards beating the protesters. He heard news of his girlfriend's death in the early morning, around the same time that the video clip of Neda, blood pouring from her face as her father screamed, was making its way around the world.
Makan now lives in a small apartment in a city he does not know. He keeps his whereabouts unknown, out of fear for the long reach of the Iranian secret police. Neda's parents, who still reside in Iran, face similar difficulties, but like Makan, they refuse to be silent. On November 4th, Neda's parents were attacked and detailed at a protest. A source told the Times of London that members of the security forces threatened them, saying they could meet the same fate as their daughter. Even more recently, Neda's tombstone was destroyed by supporters of Iran's current regime. A recording captured Hajar Rostami, Neda's mother, weeping over her desecrated grave and crying "My child has no gravestone... You bastards! Why don't you leave my child alone?" From exile, Makan added:
"The breaking of Neda's gravestone broke the hearts of millions of freedom-loving people around the world. The repressors, believing they can stifle the cries for freedom, have even attacked, beaten, threatened and insulted Neda's parents. This is while the Islamic Republic of Iran denies Neda's murder."